National Catholic Reporter

They work to soften immigration bills

They work to soften immigration bills

Catholic leaders and other religious groups that have strongly opposed punitive attempts to regulate immigration and to restrict benefits for noncitizens took different views of a House bill that was passed March 21.

On March 25, the bishops criticized the bill as “extreme and restrictive,” even though some of its most severe provisions — cutting the number of refugees and family members allowed into the United States had been stripped before the vote.

The bill that passed 333-87 would also strengthen border controls, increase penalties for people convicted of smuggling, speed the deportation process and create a test program for employers to verify workers’ eligibility.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled the following week to finish its consideration of immigration legislation, which had already been broken into separate bills on legal and illegal immigration.

Although the House effort was praised by other members of a coalition of interest groups working to defuse the legal immigration cuts, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration said the bill still contains “the most extreme and restrictive immigration and refugee proposals in over 70 years.”

“This bill will harm families, jeopardize asylum seekers and disadvantage legal immigrants by restricting their eligibility for federal services,” said the bishops’ March 22 statement.

“In addition, some of its provisions will act to punish poor children, the most vulnerable members of our society.” The House bill would forbid illegal immigrants from applying for some types of welfare on behalf of their U.S.-born children. It also would require sponsors of immigrants to have an income level that is at least twice the poverty level; it would double the current requirement; and it would make sponsors financially responsible for immigrants.

“Any policy based on denying people, especially children, access to legal protection and federal benefits is one that we do not believe reflects this country’s basic values, interests and history,” said the committee.

The bishops also decried provisions that would impose tougher restrictions on asylum applicants. “These restrictions are so far-reaching that the changes would render the U.S. asylum system another form of removal rather than a system of refugee protection.”

Other members of a large coalition working on revising the immigration legislation were more pleased with the House result. “This is a dramatic victory for our tradition as a nation of immigrants,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who has acted as coordinator of the coalition that includes the U.S. Catholic Conference and dozens of religious, civil rights, business and labor groups.

“In a bipartisan fashion, Congress has rejected the attempt to use the issue of illegal immigration as a pretext for gutting legal immigration,” Sharry added. The Farmworker Justice Fund praised the defeat of an attempt to add a new agricultural guest-worker program to the bill. The amendment would have created a new category of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico and Central America.

Franciscan Sr. Adela Gross of the USCC office of pastoral care of migrants and refugees had criticized the proposal as unnecessary and lacking basic protections for decent wages and living conditions.

“Sadly, this victory represents a successful effort to stop things from getting worse, rather than achievement of true progress”, said a statement from Bruce Goldstein, executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund. The provision is expected to be introduced in the Senate, despite its House defeat, according to Goldstein.

Earlier in March, the main U.S. organizations representing men and women religious urged Congress to keep in mind the contributions and human rights of immigrants as they consider immigration legislation.

March 15 letters to the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a House subcommittee on immigration, questioned the necessity of legislation limiting refugee admissions and restricting family reunification.

“We reiterate our concern that using immigrants to allay national anxiety about our economic situation is neither rational nor in the spirit of generosity that has so characterized the American people,” the letters said. They were signed by Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Vincentian Fr. Joseph Levesque, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Both organizations are based in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md.

“Punishing (immigrants) for changes in the U.S. economic system in the vain hope that it could help others find more jobs defies the logic of even the most conservative analysts of U.S. society and its economy,” the letters said. “Immigrants enrich us both culturally and economically.”

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee and the director of Migration and Refugee Services for the USCC also voiced their displeasure at the family immigration components of the bills.

“We believe that family reunification remains the appropriate basis for a just U.S. immigration policy,” said John Swenson, director of Migration and Refugee Services. “The family unit is the basic and most necessary building block of any society. It would be inhumane and contradictory to adopt new immigration proposals that have the effect of undermining the family structure.”

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